Monday, February 16, 2009

Laws, forms and freedoms

Having spent a lot of time recently watching the political broadcasts from the USA, I thought I’d put a toe in the dangerous sea of politics for a change - though not involving the USA.

Many Anglophone expats find other countries to be full of laws, rules, regulations, and to make sure all this ‘works’, piles of administration in daily life.

This is a big subject and I’m not sure anyone has ever performed a truly objective study that proves that number of laws and administration in say many continental European countries is necessarily greater than that in the UK or USA etc. Even so, the perception is widespread and even many Spaniards, Germans, French and Italians with experience of living in the UK or USA, will say that they believe that they have more laws and rules etc in their countries than in the Anglophone world.

So if we start to think there may be something in this, and of course I know many will not, what is the explanation?

Well, there are dozens offered by people who have extensively studied this possibly non-existent phenomenon. I don’t know, but I’ll offer up two that struck me as interesting.

1. The state as a job creator.
2. The differences between the origins of different legal systems.

The first one above is fairly easy. Many countries have a deep-rooted socialist inclination that suggests the state is responsible directly for job creation. Therefore vast numbers of petty laws are passed that need to be administered by equally vast numbers of civil servants. To justify their existence more laws are therefore created and in turn administered and so on as it becomes a self-perpetuating machine. I read recently that almost one third of all French working people work directly or indirectly for the state!

The second explanation is interesting for different reasons. This looks at the different bases of the law between the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and continental worlds.

This theory argues that much continental European law is based upon Church or religious law modified by the Napoleonic codes etc. In these societies the law is seen as providing and guaranteeing freedoms. So, if you need to be free to do something, then a just law is written and subsequently administered to guarantee your freedom to do what you need to.

The implication of this is that technically you are NOT free to do something ‘new’ until the law and administration is in place to give you your freedom.

In the Anglo-Saxon world of course it’s a bit different (in theory). Here one is ‘born free’ and nobody has the authority to write laws to give you your freedom because you have it already. The government does not have the power or right to give you freedom through the law, governments only have the power to pass laws to effectively limit or restrict freedoms in the wider interests of the greater good of society.

In theory one does not need permission by law to do something new – by definition it is legal unless the law states otherwise. So the argument goes that in this scenario it is actually ‘harder’ for governments in the English-speaking world to pass laws as they’re perceived to be restrictive.

It’s all pretty heavy stuff as an explanation for why I seem to spend a lot of time form-filling - but interesting nonetheless!

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